Fall on Snow

Yesterday the local news had this story about a guy who took an uncontrolled slide down a chute in Maybird Gulch in Little Cottonwood Canyon outside of Salt Lake City. The slide took him over some rocks and he was lucky to survive — the video accompanying the story is terrifying.

Video Courtesy of KSL.com

One has to wonder:

  • If he had made it across the snow safely, would the boy scouts in his group have followed? If several of them had gotten out on the snow and fallen together, there could easily have been multiple deaths.
  • Why did he go out onto the snow almost lying down? This position made sliding a certainty.
  • Why did he go out onto steep snow, with an obviously bad runout, without an axe?

Whenever this kind of thing happens the news likes to warn people to carry an ice axe — but without substantial training and practice this is useless and may actually increase the risk since an axe has lots of sharp parts that you don’t want sticking into your face or gut.

Here’s a quick summary of what he should have done differently:

  1. A quick look at the fall line — the line an object falling from a particular starting point will take — makes it clear that this is a very dangerous place to fall. So it would have been a great idea to simply turn back before stepping onto the snow, particularly for someone leading a youth group.
  2. If he had to cross the snow, he should have stayed on his feet and kicked steps. The snow was soft enough that he could have done this in sneakers, though stiff-soled hiking or mountain boots would have worked better. Just doing this, he would have had a good chance of making it across the snow.
  3. Every time he took a step, his axe should have been planted firmly in the snow. Since the slope doesn’t look extremely steep (40 degrees maybe?), he should have used the “cane position” which is pretty much like it sounds — you hold the head of the axe and use its shaft and spike like a cane, only moving the axe when both feet are solidly planted. In this position a fall can usually be stopped before it turns into a slide.
  4. If he somehow managed to start sliding, he should have performed a self arrest. Although it’s not 100% clear that this would have succeeded in the soft snow, it would at least have slowed him down and ensured that his feet pointed down-slope (as it was, not hitting his head on the rocks was pure luck).

My judgement is that roping up would have been overkill — a competent group could have safely crossed this chute unroped. At most a piece of webbing for a hand line would have sufficed, with a belayer sitting on the rocks. Crampons would only have added to the danger in the soft snow.

I’ve climbed in this area; it’s spectacular but definitely not a good place to fall. (In fact, the fall in the video happened in one of the “nice looking couloirs towards the East end of the headwall” that I mentioned in a trip report on Summitpost five years ago.) Every year Accidents in North American Mountaineering contains a lot of entries under “fall on snow, failure to self-arrest.” Most years I practice self-arrests on a safe slope, and I’ve been lucky enough to never have to do this for real.

2 thoughts on “Fall on Snow”

  1. Wow. This guy had some serious luck! His body position was definitely odd. He basically lay on the snow from the beginning.

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